Those Who Left the Land

It is no secret that the United States is a land currently fraught with political division. That was quite obvious from the chaos of the summertime to the chaos of the last election. Due in part to the unmissable news headlines, and in part to living alone for the first time 2,000 miles away from home, this has never been more apparent to me. In my new home in the peach state, I’ve been given more than a couple of confused glances when I tell where I’m from. There is definitely much more than landscape that makes California different from Georgia. But perhaps landscape is a good place to start when explaining the contrast.

Georgia is overwhelming in its number of trees. To see nothing but pines for miles with the inability to glance over and beyond them, remains a strange sensation for me. During my first visit to the South, I was in a Flannery O’Conner frenzy. The connection between Ms. O’Conner’s gothic yet humorous stories and the dense forest was immediately obvious to me. It was not until my fourth visit that I stumbled across the author’s home. This is another wonder of the South. There is so much historicity hidden in its foliage. The back road to my boyfriend’s house contains four slave houses in a haphazard row. How peculiar it is for someone from the comparatively new frontier of Southern California to pass weekly a sight of such suffering in such a casual way. I learned to drive on freeways with a view of LA traffic, cinder block walls, the mountains in the distance, and suburb after suburb.

Then again, the same sensation overcomes me on family road trips “out west” (as my Southern friends say) as we pass through deserts and mountains. The pioneers endured hardship of a different sort and left nearly nothing to speak of it besides some wagon tracks. California’s historical sights are less established, yet all claimed – unlike the slave houses, which belogn to no one and thus everyone. Other than a miner town’s graveyard up north, I have paid money for nearly every historical sight I have seen on the Pacific.

Georgia’s largest peaks rarely pass 4,000 ft while California’s largest is over 14,000 ft. I find it hard not to chuckle when my Southern friends talk about going to the “mountains.” Even stranger to my ears is it to hear them speak of “going west.” It appears that even today there is something alluring about the vast open lands beyond the Mississippi. I did not think of California as vast when I was little. With all its buildings and that mass of urban sprawl from San Diego to Los Angeles, what child would think of it as wide? As I grew up, I began to understand those wide-open spaces spoken of in frontier literature. One book in particular, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, opened my eyes to the wonders of my childhood home. I suddenly saw the hills as full of history. The mountains as grand, the ocean as a thing of majesty.

For all the beauty of the hills, the shoreline, the slopes, the deserts, and the peaks, my old home is young. Young, naïve, and set in its ways. It has set itself on a track that it will not soon disembark from. For those of us with old values, with cherished political and theological traditions, and, for the risk of sounding sentimental, grounded minds and a keen eye for the future, our home has become hostile. Its leaders more than dislike us, and their followers find us a nuisance. Dislike is turning to discriminatory legislation, and for that many are leaving.     

I dislike, no disagree, strongly, with the politics of my home. But so have thousands of other people in ages past and present. My family is of the same persuasion and they have become part of that massive wave of Californians heading for Texas. The push west has been reversed. I am not writing, however, to speak of my political views. I am writing because our nation has blinded itself to those issues of the human soul that transcend politics. Everything is not political. There is no capacity left for compassion when everything is put in the sphere pf politics. Nothing political, no legislation, no asylum, has helped me cope with the loss of my childhood home. In Georgia I have heard conversations berating that “crazy west coast.” I have been told how lucky I am to have left all that behind. My mother has been asked, “aren’t you glad you got out of that place?” I have been looked at like a black sheep when explaining where I am from. Of all this, one thing I cannot forget actually occurred prior to my and my family’s move. A friend from high school, upon hearing my family’s decision to move to Texas, looked at me and said, “Well, your family were never really California people anyways.”

Nothing, one) could have been less true and two) less comforting in those final few months at home. In those last couple months, I reflected more on the nature of my place in my home than I ever had. I felt keenly the upcoming loss of my childhood and of everything familiar. In the Gospels, Jesus asks “Is not the body more than clothing?” Just as the body is more than clothing, so a home is more than the politics it wears. Partisanship should never be the main shaper of a soul. California is my home not because I agree with the politics (I don’t) but because I can trace my whole life in the paths through the hills, the shells on the beach, the cemeteries, the shops by the pier, the interstate through the Sierra’s, the neighborhood parks and elementary schools, the libraries in town, the churches, the museums in Los Angeles, the poppies and lupines in the spring, the neighborhood friends and grocery stores, the freeway route to school, and the many coffee shops up and down my suburban street. Do not tell me I did not belong there in the first place. My heart aches for my home even as I am building a new one. I have lost everything familiar, everything from my growing up years, everything I can point to that shaped me and you ask me if I’m glad to be rid of that place?

No. I am sorry that my family had to leave it. I wish it was run by cooler heads so that when I return home on summer break it would be to my old bedroom, not a guest bedroom in a new state and a new house.

Steinbeck, ironically in a novel about traveling to California, wrote of the Joad family upon leaving Oklahoma: “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? … They sat and looked at it and burned it into their memories. How’ll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up at night and know – and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you.”

There are often forces at play that force a person to make a difficult decision. One that they would not necessarily have made in times of peace. The decision to leave a home of over twenty years does not come lightly.

Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet alternately condemned and praised by the Soviet Union, wrote that she pitied the exiles’ lot. I will not be as melodramatic as to call myself an exile, but I have left the land, and it feels a part of me was left there too. Anna Akhmatova never left Russia like so many of her contemporaries, even though the government imprisoned her son. I do not know whether such loyalty to a place grown so brutal is justified, but I do understand the sentiment. And sometimes I read her poem and wish I could say with her that “I was not one of those who left the land.”

“I am not one of those who left the land

To the mercy of its enemies.

Their flattery leaves me cold,

My songs are not for them to praise.

But I pity the exile’s lot.

Like a felon, like a man half dead,

Dark is your path, wanderer,

Wormwood infects your foreign bread.

But here, in the murk of conflagration,

Where scarcely a friend is left to know,

We, the survivors, do not flinch

From anything, not a single blow.

Surely the reckoning will be made

After the passing of this cloud.

We are the people without tears,

Straighter than you… more proud…”

Anna Akhmatova, 1922

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